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Simpson sheds shadow at North Dakota

by Bob Snow

If University of North Dakota senior defenseman Dillon Simpson were born three years earlier, the family photo album would likely have him sitting in Lord Stanley's Cup.

Simpson's dad, Craig, also an NCAA standout at Michigan State, was etched into Cup lore when the Edmonton Oilers won the championship in 1988 and 1990.

Currently a broadcaster for Hockey Night in Canada, Craig Simpson's two college seasons from 1983-85 included 141 points in 88 games, which led to becoming the No. 2 pick by the Pittsburgh Penguins at the 1985 NHL Draft.

His NHL career from 1985-95 would begin immediately in the Steel City for almost three seasons, but it ended prematurely with the Buffalo Sabres after a serious back injury.

Former Edmonton Oiler Craig Simpson poses with son Dillon, who was selected 92nd overall by the Oilers in the 2011 NHL Draft. (Photo: Getty Images)

In between was a timely trade to the Oilers during the 1987-88 season that kept him in Edmonton for the majority of his career.

Those two Oilers championships were also accented with Simpson's game-winning goal in Game 5 of the 1990 Stanley Cup Final, and 31 playoff points that year.

NHL careers and Stanley Cup championships aside, the Simpson-family focus has always been education, and the NCAA route to wherever their hockey roads might lead – or end.

For Dillon Simpson, an Edmonton native taken in the fourth round (No. 92) of the 2011 NHL Draft by the Oilers, there was no doubt about where academics fit in his game plan and how well he would emerge from Dad's shadow to make an imprint in Grand Forks, N.D., as he winds down a stellar college career at the age of 21 come February. Some NCAA players are 21 during their freshman year.

Last month, the North Dakota captain was named a finalist for the 2013-14 prestigious Lowes Senior CLASS Award, which focuses on the total student-athlete.

In the classroom, Simpson is a managerial finance and corporate accounting major with a 3.7 cumulative grade point average. He is a two-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete and a two-time All-WCHA Academic Team selection.

"When he was 15 or 16," Craig Simpson told, "I took him to Michigan State to get a feel for what college hockey was like. The NCAA route was one I was pretty adamant about pushing him toward.

"When you live in western Canada, the Western Hockey League is a pretty good draw with scouts and teams talking to families when kids are 13, 14 or 15. Kids can't go to college by signing a [Tier 1 junior] contract or playing an exhibition game.

"His mom and I talked about the importance of school and continuing your education. It's a real challenge to continue your education in this geography if you are a good hockey player. We told all the western teams that Dillon was going to go to [a U.S. college], so don't waste an early draft pick on him. I think Kelowna took him in the eighth round, just to have his rights."

In 2009, the 17-year-old, 6-foot-2, 198-pound freshman immediately earned a starting role on the North Dakota blue line. Honing his combination of smarts and skills over four years puts him among the NCAA's best defensemen.

"Yeah, you have aspirations for the NHL," Simpson told "I've had three good summer camps with the Oilers. But I knew I wanted to be here for the long term, play four years, and the degree was very important. I take pride in the school piece, and balancing both hockey and school. I knew [North Dakota] was the place for me. No regrets."

North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol's only regret is losing Simpson in the spring after four years of appreciating the total package of qualities his prized defenseman brings.

"He took a lot of the lessons that he learned growing up around his father and in NHL locker rooms," Hakstol said. "Dillon's done nothing but build on that for the last four years. He's never expected something for free because of his background. He's always earned everything the right way."

What have some of those lessons produced?

"His big attributes are his hockey sense, puck skills, and a real calmness about him on the ice," Hakstol said. "[He is] one of those players that has good presence in every situation and makes very good decisions. Over four years, he made use of every week developmentally. The value of intelligence in our game gives him a very deep understanding of the game. As a leader, he has really built the trust of his teammates because of the success in all the different areas of his life. He's a well-prepared individual. That garners respect of everyone around you."

Like most hockey kids, Simpson's playing roots were those bitter-cold Canadian nights in backyard rinks, where playing for fun leads to preparing for a longer run.


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"We always had an outdoor rink in the backyard," Simpson said. "My dad would shoot pucks on me. It was fun for me and my brother [Riley] to try and beat him. It's for sure he took something off his shots at the time. I was six or seven growing up around the Oilers and seeing his accomplishments. It was about the same time I started playing hockey. Then he was my coach in most of my minor hockey."

Dillon Simpson remembers those experiences as lifelong nuggets in his skill and attitude development.

"Dad stressed having a good stick and understanding the game as a defenseman," Simpson said. "More than anything, he wanted me to always give 100 percent, but have fun. The work ethic every day is something he instilled in me early on. Skill wise, he stressed my skating. [He] drilled it in to me.

"I was a centerman growing up. Maybe at 11, my dad was coaching me in summer hockey; he wanted me to try out defense and see how I liked it. I never looked back after that."

Craig Simpson vividly recalled that summer.

"I said, 'Dillon, if you become a steady and reliable defenseman, you can play the rest of your life because every team is looking for that at any level.'"

With only a few months left in his collegiate career, Dillon Simpson is enjoying his last ride at North Dakota. He's also looking forward to his own opportunity in the NHL.

The Fighting Sioux are again among the elite college teams in the country, with Simpson leading that charge to what he's hoping will be an eighth national title for North Dakota.

He is tied for fourth on the team in scoring with six points, which is tied for tops among North Dakota's defensemen.

Two storied programs, Boston University and North Dakota, met for two games in Boston this past weekend. A loss and a tie kept North Dakota hovering around the .500 mark.

They were ranked No. 14 into the past weekend as the season's first half winds down.

"We are a work in progress," Hakstol said.

Led by Dillon Simpson.

"He's living his life," Craig Simpson said about his son carving out his own niche. "Ultimately, he's got his own hopes and dreams."

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